Can we Dethrone Mammon?

Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt reviews Justin Welby’s Lent book Dethroning MammonMammon is money or possessions when they are enthroned. The author says there is nothing wrong with money in itself, but when it exercises supreme power (is enthroned) it becomes mammon: evil, destructive and dangerous. A Foreword commending the book is from Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement which now has nearly 150 communities worldwide.

The author is, of course, Archbishop of Canterbury. This book has been written specially for Lent, that seven week period of preparation for Holy Week, and the death and Easter resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The six chapter headings give the flavour:

  • what we see we value
  • what we measure controls us
  • what we have we hold
  • what we receive we treat as ours
  • what we give we gain
  • what we master brings us joy

Re-thinking materialism

An introduction uses Jesus’ parable of a merchant finding an immensely precious pearl – to be gained even at the cost of surrendering everything else. Welby suggests that preparation for the Passion of Jesus might involve, not so much re-thinking chocolate and alcohol but, re-thinking materialism, mammon on its throne, what is good and bad in the economy.

Each further chapter is similarly based on a Bible story or passage. Chapter 1 (using the death of Lazarus) offers a more insightful kind of seeing. Money as an idol has a pseudo-divine authority in our lives, distorting our seeing.

Chapter 2 (Zaccheus the taxman) shows we like to measure – salary, budget, profit, even time. So unpaid caring of children, elderly and the disabled is less valued, as is the word of God. But mammon lies, deceives us, and controls.

Envy or generosity?

Ch 3 (Mary anointing Jesus) contrasts the economic systems of Judas and Mary, between fearful envy and ‘absurd’ generosity. Ch 4 (Jesus washing the disciples’ feet) explores the close relationship of money and power. Jesus’ challenge is not just for personal humility, but for a community of service.

Ch 5 (the burial of Jesus) is an intriguing and thoughtful critique of ‘financial man’ and ‘economic man’ in the light of the extraordinary behaviour of the rich Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There are comments on international generosity, e.g. the Marshall Plan and DFID (the Department for International Development).

Ch 6 (the message to the church in Laodicea, and the fall of Babylon in Revelation) returns to the deceitfulness of mammon. Ways to dethrone mammon involve listening properly to God, repenting, and intentionally enthroning Christ in our lives – examples are given.

Exciting and fresh

I couldn’t read the book quickly because it is demanding in both information and challenge; but I didn’t want to put it down because it is winsome, exciting and fresh. Welby fairly says he is neither a professional economist or theologian – but he has substantial senior experience in oil finance, and a thoughtful rigorous approach to scripture. He was a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards following the 2008 financial turmoil, and has led a practical and successful assault on the pay-day loans business.

Highly recommended

I cannot recommend this relatively small book too highly. If you read it carefully you will be in the company of the Governor of the Bank of England.

Few subjects are more important and relevant; few books could have a greater impact for good, for grace and justice. Might you put it ahead of chocolate and alcohol?

Ven. Dr Gordon Kuhrt lives in Buckinghamshire and is a former vicar, Archdeacon and Director of Ministry for the Church of England. This review was first published on the Resistance and Renewal blog

There have been a few other reviews of the book. It is quite unusual to see a review on the BBC website, though perhaps understandable given the author. The one in Christianity Magazine was rather negative, but Nick Spencer’s review at Theos perhaps explains why:

Throughout, the Archbishop engages in detailed scriptural work – texts are central to his chapters, never afterthoughts – as well as personal anecdotes, while occasionally venturing onto more overtly economic and political grounds. If the book doesn’t quite cohere, it is because this is an awful lot to cover in a very short space, the author continually tugged in different directions: the personal spiritual re-formation of a conventional Lent book on one side, the vast, impersonal economic forces that make money such an intractable issue on the other. Ultimately, the book’s heart is in Lent and in our personal tussles between Mammon and Jesus, but this reader at least always wanted to hear more about the impersonal and structural issues that vex us to today. Maybe that’s for the next book.

But he concludes with a positive observation:

Such criticism notwithstanding, Dethroning Mammon is an admirable contribution to the re-narration of Christianity in the UK, less concerned, in spite of what critics claim, with what people do in the bedroom than it is with how they behave in the boardroom.

Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times, gives plenty of detail but without any evaluative comment.

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3 thoughts on “Can we Dethrone Mammon?”

  1. Aren’t the bedroom and the boardroom equally places of moral consequence, and equally places of concern for the public good? A society which is obsessed with sex, and is reaping the whirlwind of unrestrained indulgence, wonders why God might have something to speak into this vexed area. The Bible doesn’t decide it has to care about one or the other. Why should we? Particularly as we all have a bedroom. But very few of us have a place in a boardroom.

    I’m all in favour of speaking out against idolatrous and unjust attitudes to money and possessions. But a ‘re-narration’ of Christianity towards this and away from concern about sexual ethics hardly seems timely given our society’s massive problems with sex. Also, concerns about capitalist economics are shared by left-wing politics in general, and so are never short of voices. But sometimes it seems that (conservative) Christians are the only ones still willing to point out the gross disobedience to God’s laws in the area of sex, and the malign consequences of this for individuals and society.

    So this sounds like a great book – but none of this either-or Christianity please!

  2. ‘The author says there is nothing wrong with money in itself, but when it exercises supreme power (is enthroned) it becomes mammon: evil, destructive and dangerous.

    How often do we hear this trite sentiment? Yet, the reality is that money does not have to exercise supreme power for it to hold its corruptive sway in our souls.

    Of course, money isn’t evil, but we still accumulate our surplus for the inexorable ‘rainy day’, instead of prioritizing its use for the more immediate needs of victims of injustice and misfortune.

    What does John the Baptist’s injunction mean for me and you: ‘He who has two coats, let him give to him who has none. He who has food, let him do likewise.”? (Luke 3:11)

    Consider the insidious tempting power of surplus wealth. Even Oliver Cromwell, despite his revolutionary ideals, eventually installed himself as Lord Protector with a salary of £100,000. He may well have turned down the crown, but he succumbed to the temptation of dynasty, nominating his son, Richard, as his successor.

    This is the selfsame man who engineered the trial and execution of Charles I with the charge of: ‘”wicked designs, wars, and evil practices of him, the said Charles Stuart, have been, and are carried on for the advancement and upholding of a personal interest of will, power, and pretended prerogative to himself and his family, against the public interest, common right, liberty, justice, and peace of the people of this nation.”

    The fact is the only remedy for the corrupting power of surplus wealth is to be overwhelmed by divine insight and empowerment (as Zacchaeus was) and for the spell of worldly advancement to be broken under the discipline of God-wrought adversity.

    It is only by God’s grace that any of us can reflect fully on how our obsessive accumulation of worldly surplus will end up ruined by dispossession and deterioration, such that we cry: ‘Vanity of vanities…all is vanity’ (Eccl. 1:2)

  3. I disagre with the first 3 assumptions:
    What we see we value
    – I work in the private sector with its emphasis on commercialism & capitalism, I also have many very wealthy friends but I like to think I’m content and grateful for what I have (it’s only when we lose things that we truly know whether we idolised them – hence I like to think)
    What we measure controls us
    – I measure my things to ensure I control them not they me. This is why the first thing Christians Against Poverty do is to get clients to write down all their debts.
    What we have we hold
    – possibly but in order to give don’t we first have to hold (hopefully lightly). Which feeds into what we receive we treat as ours.


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